Monthly Archives: April 2013

Building walls around us

The idea of compound walls is a western import into India, especially during the British times.

27HAB-greensens_27_1440822eCan any of us guess the resources spent in building compound walls around us? Statistics can be mind boggling – and here it goes. A typical owner of 30 x 40 ft. plot in Bangalore builds 450 sq. ft of wall, excluding the gate area, which is enough to enclose an additional 10 ft. x 15 ft. room, excluding the openings. So, just by spending for a roof additionally over the compound wall cost, we can get an extra room. On the higher side, a 50 ft. x 80 ft. site demands 850 sq. ft of compound wall that can enclose three adjacent rooms of 10 ft. x 12 ft. size each, virtually a small town row of shops. The comparison is simple: if only we had not built compound walls in modern India, many lakhs of new houses could have been built with the same amount of time, energy and materials.

Statistics can be misleading, but they often reveal facts that we never tend to recognise. The idea of compound walls is a western import into India, especially during the British times. The same British did not wall up all their village homes nor did they promote the idea in the U.S., country of their immigration, where even today it is difficult to find compound walls. The absence of such walls has not hindered living in the U.S. in anyway, instead has created a much better civic sense and urban aesthetics there.

Demarcation

Incidentally, even India in the past did not have any compound walls. All houses and buildings opened directly to the road, path or the space in front. The adjacent buildings had only space around commonly used by both the neighbours. This typology continues to function in our villages, small towns and the older parts of new cities. Absence of the wall does not mean anyone can claim our land, for the papers clearly record the ownership, which need not be demarcated and expressed on site all the time.

Even the side wall comes with its own bag of problems. The narrow setback space gets further fragmented, leaving no option for a shared space there for a kitchen garden or parking of two wheelers that both the neighbours can enjoy. Access to fire tender gets narrowed by these side walls, restricting the movement of firemen with water pipes and nozzles. Instead without a wall there, two neighbours, possibly both with narrow setbacks, can enjoy wider space between them.

We are not discussing the social distancing created by the walls that we build around us; we are not discussing the division of us which the walls bring about, both of which are true. We are simply discussing how unfriendly these compound walls are from an ecological perspective. From all arguments, personal to environmental, compound walls are not a healthy sign of a sustainable society.

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Trust local wisdom

Design ideas cannot be universal, they have to be sympathetic to the local climate and materials.

20HAB-greensens_20_1433945eMost important among the recurring feedback on Green Sense, besides generally appreciating sharing of experiences, has been about lack of quality at construction sites. However good an idea, it is not worth sharing if not well executed. When red oxide appears shoddy, filler slab goes wavy, exposed wall has bad joints, tiled roof leaks, even good wood gets bent or materials used turn out to be of unacceptable quality, we repent and regret for trying out an alternative eco-friendly idea. Incidentally, the idea itself has no fault here, yet gets blamed. Indeed a disturbing situation since our heart and purse has been with them all.

Our country encompasses varied climatic zones with vast variety of materials. It is not easy to standardise procedures for construction; however, without norms and codes, it is impossible to set high standards. Historically each region has built differently, but today a few systems rooted in manufactured materials, concrete construction, controlled indoor environment and such others are being adopted everywhere, unfortunately wiping out the ecologically meaningful regional specificities. As such, some attention to basic quality in the making of sustainable buildings is imperative to ensure both efficiency and effectiveness.

While we have a large number of architects and engineers today with varying degrees of expertise in eco-friendly ideas and sustainable buildings, their expertise would be applicable to the region where they advice. Architects can and do design for outstation projects, now even for international locations. However, mostly they get commissioned due to the image attached to their name or the style they propagate rather than for the knowledge of the site location they possess. Hence the possibility of their design ideas not being sympathetic to local climate and materials is very high.

Initiatives

As such, only national-level initiatives such as The Energy and Resource Institute (TERI), Energy Conservation Building Code (ECBC), Indian Green Building Council (IGBC), Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), and National Building Code (NBC) can gather all the ideas and projects for further dissemination. Construction and subsequent occupation of buildings will consume resources, many of which will rely on MEP (Mechanical, Electrical and Plumbing) and HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air conditioning) services. Since most of them depend upon non-renewable energy sources and depleting resource base, the need of the hour is to increasingly rely upon passive means of achieving indoor comforts of light, air and temperature to which end we need to reduce our dependency upon mechanical, electrical and artificial means. Even in a tropical country like India with abundant sun and wind, we spend much on lighting, cooling and refrigeration. Suggesting standard approaches and concepts of sustainable buildings can assist any architect, engineer or builder in applying them in their respective given context and ensure the buildings consume less resources.

While it appears fair to depend upon the aforesaid institutes, the individuals involved with every construction, right from the owner to the mason, are answerable in case standards are not met with and sustainability is not achieved. Individualising the attitude towards quality and conservation are the only answers to better future.

An eco-source called TERI

Not every country has a centre dedicated to energy, that too started 39 years ago, which makes TERI unique.

India has been a nation of institutions and many of them like IISc. (Indian Institute of Science); IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology) and others have made our country proud, being on par with many reputed institutes abroad. Likewise, in the sustainable building sector, we have The Energy and Resources Institute – popularly called as TERI. Not every nation has a centre dedicated to energy, that too started 39 years ago, which makes TERI very unique. Sustainable development has been among its focus now for over 30 years. It is a source of information on energy efficient ideas, and all that we need to do is to log in and start applying the ideas.

The mandate of TERI is vast, covering energy, industry, rural requirements, urban issues, building sector, sustainable development and so on, innovating in India for India, despite drawing upon the best practices from different nations. Besides gathering global data and ideas, it also has its own publications, guidebooks, project case studies and seminar papers available for those interested. TERI is among the few institutions that have walked the talk – it has actually built office buildings, research facilities, University campus and retreats in many cities, demonstrating the practical application of energy conservation measures and ecological benefits of what it propagates.

Rating system

Among the varied activities of TERI, the one immediately useful to anyone planning to undertake a construction is its rating system. The idea of rating a building is like a student getting examination marks – the building is judged against many project parameters to see how it fares and thereupon also be able to evaluate how it may perform during its operational years. The TERI rating system, known as GRIHA, is today accepted by the Government as the national system to evaluate the environmental performance of a building holistically over its entire life cycle, thereby providing a definitive standard for what constitutes a green building.

Both a guideline to follow and a criteria to evaluate, it looks at protecting the land, enriching the soil, climatically effective designs, resource efficient construction, conserving water, reducing power needs, promoting low energy materials, reducing waste, treating waste water, ease of maintenance, reduced life cycle costs and such others. There are 100 points allocated against varied items wherein more than 50 scores gets one to five-star rating; higher the score more the stars. The list of concepts, tasks to do and approach to take act like a checklist of specific actions, hence are worthy of being referred to, even if one does not intend to apply for certification.

There have been frequent comments about how researched ideas do not move from the lab to the land. To mitigate such a scene, TERI has taken many efforts towards publications, seminars and Government partnerships, besides acting as a consultant. India is among the few nations with individuals and institutions focusing on sustainability and its time we take the benefit of them.

Evergreen world

It is important to look into the spirit of green buildings and thereupon develop the criteria specific to the area. A look at the working of the IGBC.

06HABgreensense_06_1418943eThere was a time when green was associated with envy, but today green connotes environment. Green raises hopes of sustainability. Green is not merely a colour, but an attitude and approach.

Green was initially associated with ecologists with their struggle to save forests, besides connoting any nature friendly activity. It was when the U.S. Green Building Council was born that the word was possibly borrowed for the first time by the construction industry and soon got accepted all over. India included, many countries started their own Green Building Councils and today the Indian unit, called in short IGBC, is among the world leaders in promoting green buildings.

The total area coming under the purview of IGBC has been increasing rapidly, thanks to the efforts of its office-bearers and industry acceptance. From the building sector, now it has expanded to cover landscape, cities, industries and homes.

How it works

The green building movement emerged as an action-focussed agenda to mitigate depleting resources, energy consumption, life cycle costs, production of waste and such others. Accordingly, IGBC has enlisted ideas that consume less, save money, do less harm to nature and create a better future. Initially it was more applicable to the high-end energy-guzzling public buildings, but of late it is covering even individual houses. Based on the points gained by a building under varied headings, a certificate called LEED is issued to recognise the contribution of the building. IGBC also conducts examinations, short courses, conferences and publishes guidebooks disseminating data.

The idea behind the rating

The major achievement of IGBC has been in reducing energy consumption in large urban structures. It also has a wealth of information about thousands of green buildings from around the world for consultants to learn from. The periodic training programmes and workshops have spread the best practices far and wide. A large pool of accredited professionals is now available for specific consultation to ensure the buildings adhere to IGBC green building norms. Many people believe that individually architects and engineers are not good writers, but collectively in an institutionalised set-up, their knowledge gets spread out.

Lack of focus

Incidentally what matters more is not the word, but the associated action. For long we heard the term ‘eco-friendly architecture’, which continues to be valid even today. However, it did not focus on tangible data based on measurements and quantifications.

Without the factual data, it is difficult to state the realities or monitor them. IGBC believes in such a methodical approach. The council website has all relevant information, so anyone can benefit from this storehouse of information and experience.

In a vast nation like India with a wide range of site contexts, benchmarking any approach as the standard is impossible, including those of IGBC. As such, it is important to look into the spirit of green buildings and thereupon develop the criteria specific to the area, be it Kashmir or Kanyakumari.